About Men in Black II, Roger Ebert once wrote: “Men in Black II creates a new threat for the MIB, but recycles the same premise, which is that mankind can defeat an alien invasion by assigning agents in Ray-Bans to shoot them into goo.” The same can be said about Men in Black: International, a film that does literally nothing to convince me that this franchise which frankly wrapped up beautifully in 2012 needed a spinoff. The film doesn’t provide a fresh perspective or show a different dimension to the universe (which is what you would hope for in a spinoff), rather it’s the same old toy from seven Christmases ago, just wrapped in a different box. Instead of two males, here we have a male and a female — and with it, comes the mandatory “Men AND Women in Black” joke that we’ve heard time and time again.
Why International? I wonder. The world-building is lacklustre (the only imaginative moment comes midway through the movie when our agents step into a taxi that doubles as a portal to an underground night club) and the cities lack personality. In the original Men in Black, the city looked and felt like 90s New York. It was crowded, dusty and felt lived in. In Men in Black: International, everything looks glossy and hollow. The frames feel empty. At one point, the agents go up the Eiffel Tower and for whatever reason, there are only two tourists. For a film subtitled ‘International’ I’m disappointed the screenplay doesn’t journey our characters to Spain to meet Cristiano Ronaldo (he’s 34 years old, has the biological age of 23 and is the top scorer for his club when he should be retiring. I have an inkling he’s an alien). Why doesn’t the film have wicked little side jokes like this?
The plot: 20 years ago, a tiny alien creature came into little Molly’s house. MIB agents arrive and erase her parents’ memory, but because they assumed she didn’t know what was going on, didn’t erase hers. We cut to the present and Molly (now played by Tessa Thompson) is a highly intelligent and capable individual who keeps applying to work at government agencies like the FBI and CIA. During the interviews, she tells them she wants to be part of the secret department that deals with aliens. Of course, they reject her application on the basis that she’s a lunatic. But she doesn’t give up. One day she successfully tracks down the super secret MIB headquarters and begs them to take her in. She’s put on probation and gets assigned to London. Something catastrophic is about to happen because of… err to be perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure. Nothing’s laid out properly. But let’s just say there are some bad aliens which will cause kaboom? I think.
The villains lack motivation or any semblance of character writing really. The same can almost be said about the villain in the original MIB. But at least there, the creature design was interesting. The cockroach monster had a distinct look. At one point he chases a woman around a morgue. In another scene, cockroaches start crawling out of his sleeves. He had personality. Here, we have a pair of twins that sorta just walk around looking like pissed off runway models. And then they engage in a monotonous, unimaginatively choreographed, VFX heavy action block where characters just stand on separate ends of the street and shoot at each other. I can’t believe the film is directed by F Gary Gray who also made Straight Outta Compton.
I can believe that it’s written by the dudes who received credits for Iron Man, Matt Holloway and Art Marcum. I say that only because there was no Iron Man script, only an outline and a majority of the film was improvised on set. Holloway and Marcum also wrote Transformers: The Last Night. Go figure. Here they try to introduce some interesting ideas. There’s a mole in the MIB. But the sequences lack thrills and don’t keep us guessing. And the twist, even grandmas with cataract will see coming from a mile away. But it’s not just about predictability. It’s that we don’t care enough about the characters to feel anything during the reveal.
But despite all my complaints, I found the movie rather easy to get through. Its enjoyability comes from three performers with excellent chemistry and first-rate comedic timing holding together the film like a cobbler’s glue. While the plot isn’t engaging, watching Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth constantly quibble with each other is entertaining. They’re essentially playing their characters from the MCU. Agent M is confident, capable, sarcastic and an ass-kicker, while agent H is a good looking, overconfident moron with a heart of gold. He also kicks ass.
In between both of them is a little alien called Pawny (even this is a remixed version of the dog from MIB II) voiced to comedic perfection by Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick, Silicon Valley). I don’t know if his lines are part of the screenplay of they’re improvised but every word that comes out of the little alien’s mouth is gold. But it isn’t just funny lines, it’s the way Nanjiani uses his voice to bring the CGI character to life — he’s more alive than any of the real-life beings. The sequence where Pawny pledges his sword to Agent M and another where Pawny acts as the middle man, delivering messages to M and H are some of the funniest moments I’ve seen of the entire franchise.
So where does that leave us? Men in Black: International isn’t terrible. In fact, if you’re looking to just kill time, you’ll get slightly more than you bargained for. It’s a slice of vegetarian pizza that’s enough to fill your tummy. But for those who’re looking for a fat juicy steak, it’s best if turn elsewhere. Men in Black: International is another harmless summer movie that does nothing to provoke thought or emotional response. It is also quite obviously only made to capitalise on a pre-existing franchise’s name in an era that continuously treats originality like its an STD.